Interview Conducted by Christiane Hoffmann
The nuclear deal with Iran is limping on even after the United States’ withdrawal. DER SPIEGEL spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the agreement, what Europe’s options are and his country’s growing influence in the Middle East.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, in May, United States President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. In August, sanctions against your country were reimposed and since then, the Iranian economy has been struggling. Do you feel as though you have been left in the lurch by Europe?
Zarif: The Europeans are facing a very fundamental question on the principles of international relations. The U.S. wants to force its political and economic will onto the rest of the world. There is a UN Security Council resolution on the nuclear agreement and Iran is observing it while the U.S. is violating it. Now, the U.S. is demanding that others join them in breaking international law. Europe has to decide whether it will submit to that demand. It is a precedent that will have consequences for a very long time.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump has announced that he plans to impose additional sanctions on Iran in early November aimed at preventing your country from exporting oil. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has threatened that if Washington goes through with it, Iran would close down the Strait of Hormuz. That would be a de facto declaration of war against the United States.
Zarif: Rouhani was speaking about the case that the Americans were actually able to block Iranian oil exports. If that were to happen, nobody else would be able to assume business as usual either.
DER SPIEGEL: Rouhani warned the U.S. “not to play with the tail of the lion,” saying they would “regret” it.
Zarif: We don’t think it will come to that. Iran will still be able to sell oil. If the U.S. really wanted to prevent Iranian oil exports, they would need more than just threats. And then, we would be faced with a completely different situation.
DER SPIEGEL: What is Iran doing to prevent an escalation?
Zarif: We don’t want an escalation. We negotiated a deal in good faith, one that is in the interests of the international community, including the U.S. Twelve reports filed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including two after the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, have shown that Iran is fulfilling its obligations. We want to continue. For that to happen, though, the U.S. must become a normal country and respect its international obligations.
DER SPIEGEL: The EU, Russia and China are all still adhering to the nuclear agreement. What would be the problem with simply continuing it with these signatories?
Zarif: The Europeans and other signatories must take action to compensate for the effects of the U.S. sanctions. In May, they presented us with a package. That was an important commitment. Now, it must be translated into action. The most important thing is that Europe shouldn’t do it for Iran, but for its own sovereignty and its long-term economic interests.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean in concrete terms?
Zarif: Our first priority is to ensure that Iran can continue to sell reasonable amounts of oil and to bring the proceeds back to Iran. In addition, we are interested in investment and cooperation in a variety of areas like science, technology and trade. But the litmus test is oil and banking.
DER SPIEGEL: European governments cannot force companies to continue business activity in Iran if the U.S. is punishing them for doing so.
Zarif: The question is whether Europe wants its companies to obey European law or American. Whether it subordinates itself to American bullying.
DER SPIEGEL: No government can force companies to invest in Iran.
Zarif: The EU has the “Blocking Statute.” It could penalize companies if they pull out of Iran due to U.S. sanctions.
DER SPIEGEL: You think Germany should punish Siemens and Daimler because their business operations in the U.S. are more important to them than those in Iran?
Zarif: Europe has said that the nuclear agreement is in their own security interest. Europe must be prepared to pay for its security. Nothing is for free. Europeans must decide whether they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.
DER SPIEGEL: Does the nuclear deal still have supporters among the Iranian leadership?
Zarif: The nuclear agreement is not a love affair. It was a sensible compromise. Iran is prepared to continue adhering to it for as long as it serves our interests. That is a purely practical issue, not an emotional one. International relations are rooted in give and take. If this balance is destroyed by the actions of the Americans and the passivity of the Europeans, we will react accordingly.
DER SPIEGEL: You would terminate the deal?
Zarif: Iran has possibilities both within the framework of the nuclear agreement as well as outside of it. That is what we have prepared for.
DER SPIEGEL: What advantage would Iran have from ending the agreement?
Zarif: We wouldn’t necessarily have to terminate it. Article 36 of the nuclear agreement along with Security Council resolution 2231 allow for its limited application rather than termination.
DER SPIEGEL: You would begin once again enriching uranium at a heightened level?
Zarif: That would be one possibility.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump has proposed direct talks with Iran. You have called this proposal a “PR stunt.” What’s wrong with holding talks?
Zarif: If direct talks are aimed at more than just a PR effect, they must be directed toward an agreement. But we already have one that we spent 12 years negotiating. We had hours and hours of talks at the ministerial level, something that was unprecedented in the history of the U.S. and Iran. Now, Trump has thrown everything out. Who can guarantee that he would implement a new agreement? We won’t waste our time again with direct talks.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you ruling out talks?
Zarif: There is no basis for talks.
DER SPIEGEL: What if the U.S. were to return to the nuclear agreement?
Zarif: That would be a necessary step. That would make it possible to consider holding talks.
DER SPIEGEL: One of the things Trump would like to talk about is Iran’s aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East.
Zarif: That has nothing to do with the nuclear agreement. Only when Europe ensures that the agreement is actually implemented can Iran determine whether it makes sense to talk about other issues.
DER SPIEGEL: In the last several years, Iran has expanded its power in the region and now exerts significant influence from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, either through its own troops or through proxies.
Zarif: Is that our fault? Is it our fault that we make the right decisions, that we did not support al-Qaida in Syria and fought against Islamic State (IS) from the very beginning?
DER SPIEGEL: Many countries are concerned about Iran’s growing influence.
Zarif: Iran has consistently demonstrated prudence and restraint in the region. We also have plenty of concerns regarding Western policy in the area. European allies have armed both IS and the Nusra Front.
DER SPIEGEL: You are referring to Saudi Arabia.
Zarif: Europe is silent about the hundreds of thousands who are starving in Yemen. And who delivers all of the weapons to our region?
DER SPIEGEL: Weren’t Iranian missiles fired on Saudi Arabia from Yemen?
Zarif: That is an allegation. The Yemenis have plenty of weapons, they don’t need any Iranian missiles. We offered peace, but the Saudi Arabians insist on a military victory.
DER SPIEGEL: You aren’t even speaking with Riyadh.
Zarif: What are we supposed to do? We proposed talks, but some countries in the region are hoping to drive the U.S. into a conflict with Iran. They are inciting tensions.
DER SPIEGEL: Israel is also uneasy. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria was operating quite close to the border for a time.
Zarif: The threat comes from Israel, not from Syria or Lebanon.
DER SPIEGEL: Iran calls Israel a cancerous tumor that must be eradicated.
Zarif: We have never threatened Israel with violence. We say that the policies pursued by the Zionist regime will lead to its annihilation. That isn’t something that we will do.
DER SPIEGEL: The Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, with which Iran is allied, possesses rockets that can reach Tel Aviv. That is sufficient as a threat.
Zarif: They only have the rockets for self-defense. They don’t use them to attack anybody. Hezbollah acted with extreme restraint when Saudi Arabia kidnapped Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Riyadh was trying to provoke a civil war in Lebanon and even encouraged Israel to intervene.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that the U.S. is seeking regime change in Iran?
Zarif: There is every indication that they continue to harbor this illusion.
DER SPIEGEL: The war in Syria is extremely unpopular among many in Iran. At the recent protests, people were chanting: “Forget Syria! Take care of us!” Why doesn’t Iran pull out of Syria?
Zarif: War is never popular. But terrorism and extremism know no borders. Islamic State was extremely close to the Iranian border. We were asked to help, and as a responsible regional power, we are helping. But we never got directly involved. We only supported Syria and Iraqi-Kurdistan with military advisers.
DER SPIEGEL: Militias allied with Iran are fighting side-by-side with the regime. Around a half-million people have lost their lives. Iran has already achieved its war aims: Assad has been stabilized, IS has been defeated.
Zarif: The situation in Syria remains fragile.
DER SPIEGEL: Assad is preparing to conquer the last rebel stronghold of Idlib.
Zarif: We are trying to prevent further escalation and bloodshed in the densely populated region. Our motto has always been that there is no military solution in Syria.
DER SPIEGEL: Your allies are bombing a region where almost 3 million civilians are living.
Zarif: Our goal is to liberate the region from extremist terrorists like the Nusra Front, to reestablish a minimum of normality for the civilian population and to open secure routes for goods and for refugees.
DER SPIEGEL: At the recent summit in Tehran, Turkey proposed a cease-fire. Why did Iran reject it?
Zarif: We didn’t reject the cease-fire. The problem was that it was unclear how IS and the Nusra Front could be included.
DER SPIEGEL: Who is actually responsible for Iranian foreign policy? You as foreign minister or the Revolutionary Guard, led by the powerful Qasem Soleimani?
Zarif: Iranian foreign policy is determined neither by me nor by Mr. Soleimani, rather by the Supreme National Security Council. That is where discussions are held and decisions are made. When we negotiated the nuclear agreement, it was also said: Zarif is just a mouthpiece, the deal will never be implemented because the government has no power. But we did implement the agreement.
DER SPIEGEL: The economic situation in Iran has worsened significantly. The rial has lost two-thirds of its value against the dollar since the beginning of the year. Months of protests have been the result. What is your answer to the demonstrators?
Zarif: The people have the right to express their concerns and anger through protests. That is one of our strengths. Protests are held in front of the parliament building in Tehran almost every day.
DER SPIEGEL: The government has violently struck down the protests. There have been dozens of deaths.
Zarif: Maybe there have been excesses in one or two incidents. But I’m confident that it has been the policy of the security forces to maintain law and order with the most reasonable non-violent means. The protests, of course, must take place in a peaceful manner and in accordance with the law, just like in Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: How seriously do you take the protests? Could Iran experience a scenario similar to what has taken place in Syria?
Zarif: No. But we have to take the protests very seriously. Some concerns are very much justified, particularly related to the economy. There we have perhaps made some mistakes and need to take some action.
DER SPIEGEL: Why has the economic situation worsened to such a degree?
Zarif: There are both economic and psychological reasons. We have huge currency reserves in Iran, but that money is not invested in the economy because fears of pressure from the U.S. are so high. The government must now take meaningful measures and they are working on it.
DER SPIEGEL: There have also been protests from women against the headscarf requirement. Some of them even removed their headscarves and they were immediately arrested. Why is the judiciary taking such harsh steps against them?
Zarif: Every society has laws and regulations. They are the result of a democratic process. And the judiciary takes measures to ensure they are obeyed.
DER SPIEGEL: The women have received harsh punishments. Thus far, violations of the Islamic dress code were merely penalized with fines. Now, these women are being accused of propaganda against the system and the promotion of prostitution. That has little to do with democracy.
Zarif: We, the government, may have differences with the judiciary about the severity of the measures, the way the law is being interpreted and applied. But laws must be obeyed. You also can’t simply decide to stop paying taxes because you don’t like the tax system.
DER SPIEGEL: You yourself are also currently under pressure. The rather conservative parliament has relieved several ministers of their duties.
Zarif: I have probably been requested to appear in parliament more often than all previous Iranian foreign ministers before and after the revolution combined. But they are only exercising the rights guaranteed by the constitution.
DER SPIEGEL: You have been intensely criticized by the hardliners for the nuclear deal. Looking back from today’s perspective, do you view it as a mistake?
Zarif: No, the nuclear agreement was not a mistake. The U.S. administration, after all, has backed out of all sorts of other agreements as well. Was the Paris climate agreement a mistake? Was TPP a mistake? If someone drives through a red light, are traffic lights then a mistake?
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, we thank you very much for this interview.